Texting and hanging out on various social media sites — parents not welcome — makes it seemingly impossible to be your child’s cyber shield. Here’s how to help keep her safe.
Dawn Spragg, a licensed counselor working with kids and families, sees a lot of preteens and teens dealing with online bullying. Spragg believes several things make social media a potent force for bullies, including how fast information is shared, communicating with many people at once and the ability to share photos and video — that may or may not be real. Not only have the methods of bullying changed, Spragg says, but also the bullies themselves and their targets. “No one’s safe from this kind of bullying,” Spragg says. “Popular or cool kids may not have been subjected to it in the past, but now anyone can pick on anyone from behind a computer screen.”
Before you go and deactivate your kids’ social media accounts, know that limiting access is not the answer, says Spragg. “Kids have access to computers and phones 24/7 in multiple places. If you take it away, they will go somewhere else.” Sharon Cindrich, author of A Smart Girl’s Guide to the Internet agrees. “Limiting access? That’s like asking whether keeping kids from playing on the playground will stop them from being a bully.”
Virtual bullying’s more destructive because of the immense damage it does to a person’s self-concept, ego and self-worth. Cyber-bullying can be broadcast down the hall, across an entire school, community and even around the world in just seconds. What used to be an isolated act of humiliation, now intensifies that humiliation exponentially. And cyber-bullying goes far beyond the physical damage of the past, it destroys the heart and mind of the victim, sometimes in ways that are irrevocable, experts say.
While social media may be driving up the number of bullying acts, Spragg says the response to those acts is far more aggressive than in the past. “There’s far more accountability than ever before, so that’s a positive look to the future.”
Know Your Child
Protecting your kids is an inside job. Do whatever it takes to understand your children and the world they live in — whether that means eavesdropping, spying on their texts or lurking on their social media pages. Make it your job to be the first to know if your child’s either a bully or a target. Knowing your child deeply will also help you identify when something has changed because there’s not really a way to get ahead of the technology.
Adolescence is a difficult time and it’s very easy for middle school and high school age kids to get caught up in bullying without even knowing what they’re doing. Cindrich suggests the best way to prevent kids from becoming bullies is monitoring and guidance — on the playground and off. “It has to start early, with supervision of e-mails and instant messages and online gaming, and then continue as parents monitor online Internet surfing, checking texts and talking regularly to kids about friends and school,” Cindrich adds.
Set the Example
“Parents have to model good neighbor behavior and be aware of the way they talk about friends, relatives, teachers, neighbors, politicians — everyone,” says Cindrich. “A parent’s habits and social behavior has a strong impact on their child’s social learning, especially in the tween and teen years.”
Cindrich says bullies often leave a trail online that law enforcement and public safety officials can track easily. Make sure you keep records and print out any messages for future reference. The days of ignoring bullying or downplaying it as something that’s not that serious or just what everyone (except the bully) must endure are long gone.
Spragg warns parents against trivializing what people say about their kids. What parents may think is not a big deal may be devastating to a teen. It’s important to validate the pain and embarrassment. New laws and policies support prosecution of bullies, but only when it’s reported. “Bullying thrives on fear and secrecy,” Cindrich says, “so parents should try to help children overcome the fear and bring these acts to everyone’s attention.”
Should you learn that your child has been bullied online, seek counseling to help her deal with the pain and to validate feelings. “Being able to talk to someone about what happened to her or what’s being said about her is critical,” Spragg says, who also suggests mediation with the bully. “If this is done well it can move victims to a place of healing.”